Abstract: Colored Health: The Consequences of Colorism on African American Woman's Health and Mental Health Outcomes (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

All live presentations are in Eastern time zone.

Colored Health: The Consequences of Colorism on African American Woman's Health and Mental Health Outcomes

Thursday, January 21, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Maya Williams, MSW, Doctoral Student, Washington University in Saint Louis, St. Louis, MO

Colorism is a system of inequality, which privileges individuals possessing physical attributes (hair texture, facial features, and skin tone) proximal to Whiteness. Skin tone bias is a form of colorism, where individuals associate certain stereotypes with specific skin tones and express a preference or dislike for people with light or dark skin. Even though colorism is a global phenomenon, it manifests differently in the United States within the African American community. Further, colorist inequalities have resulted in African Americans of light skin tones receiving privileges over their dark skin counterparts. For African American women, however, society frequently links their skin tone to their self-worth and physical attractiveness thus, they are more susceptible to experiences of skin tone trauma. This systematic literature review will explore how skin tone bias and colorism result in negative health and mental health outcomes for African American women. Specifically, the health and mental health outcomes that will be observed include hypertension, diabetes, depression, and self-esteem. By analyzing primary datasets, this paper highlights health inequalities among Black women. Ultimately, this presentation will facilitate discussions on colorism and health, while suggesting curriculum for social work educators to address colorism and scales for social work researchers to develop for literature advancement in the field.


The Cochrane Collaboration Guidelines framed this systematic literature review that focuses on the health and mental health consequences of colorism. During the systematic literature review process, four key databases were used that include: Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study (CARDIA), National Survey of American Life (NSAL), National Survey of Black American Series (NSBA), and Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality (MCSUI). The primary keywords searched in all text were: “African American*,” “Black*,” “women *,” “health*,” and “colorism*”. During the search, articles were found that did not mention African American women and health outcomes even though, they were included in the study. As a result, the key terms were searched throughout the text in the four databases.


These databases indicated that dark skin African American women had the worst health and mental health outcomes. First, these women reported higher levels of hypertension and diabetes when compared to their light skin counterparts. Second, among unemployed Black women those possessing darker skin tones suffered from depression more than those possessing lighter skin tones. Third, skin tone was a predictor of self-esteem, as African American women who reported the lowest self-esteem also had darker skin tones.


African American women may have varying health consequences due to their skin tone, which stems from colorism. Furthermore, poor health influences other life outcomes for Black women (e.g. education, employment, and marriage). Social workers are charged with understanding and addressing societal inequalities. Therefore, social work educators are encouraged to include discussions, literature, and resources about colorism in their curriculum. Additionally, social work researchers should expand colorism literature through the development and validation of colorism scales. Professionals could assist in reducing colorism in these ways to improve the quality of life for African American women, their families, and communities.